Tokyo’s Golden Gai: Bigger Isn’t Better

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In this city of technology and light, we go underground to hang out with teammates who aren’t afraid of the obscure.

Tucked away among the tall skyscrapers of Shinjuku and right across from the gaudy, neon lights of Kabukicho is a block of old, small buildings stacked on top of one another. The strange quietness belies the sheer amount of drinking establishments stuffed together in this block-long piece of old Tokyo – over 200 tiny bars that seat five or seven customers at most. It’s the ultimate haunt for the After Hours Athlete.

Welcome to Golden Gai. The buildings look like shanty houses, the alleys are small and dimly-lit, and the entrances to the bars themselves look shady with their rusty metal doors. Some of the buildings don’t even have windows, meaning you don’t know what you’re getting yourself into should you dare to enter.

However, once you do, you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the quality and variety that Golden Gai has to offer. From anime to 80s slasher films, British punk rock to heavy metal, hot sake to absinthe, each bar has a different theme. And you’re almost guaranteed to meet new teammates that share your taste in music, movie genre, or cocktails. Since the bars are so small, it’s almost rude not to engage the bartender (oftentimes the owner) and your fellow patrons in conversation. It’s like going to a friend’s place to hang out.

Our favourite is La Jetee, a bar named after a film by French director Chris Marker, who used to be a regular. To find it, you need to go up a very steep staircase into a café-like attic bar covered with French movie posters and Japanese and French signs. The owner was a film distributor in France and is eager to talk to you about films while crafting cocktails of choice French spirits, so film buffs should head there, especially if you know some French or Japanese.

We love Golden Gai with its odd mix of the old and new, the Japanese and the foreign, luxury and thrift. There is a bar to suit even the most obscure taste in music, movies, art, and scene, so bring your teammates and find your own niche.